There's something anti-competitive afoot in the 'VoIP over 3G' space this year. Let me run you through a timeline, and see if you can't spot the dirty pool:
- Skype has had a highly functional VoIP client for Windows Mobile devices for a few years. It allowed smartphone customers to use most features of Skype over WiFi OR a carrier's cellular data network. It was distributed around the carriers direct to customers of Skype, and was designed for those customers' benefit.
- March 2009: Skype on iPhone is launched, but is unable to do VoIP over the 3G data channel because AT&T and Apple blocked that functionality. Skype, Google, the FCC, and consumers cried "foul" at AT&T and Apple.
- Oct. 2009: After considerable FCC and consumer pressure, AT&T relents, and allows VoIP over 3G (and was even publicly applauded by Skype's CEO Josh Silverman). Skype users, naturally, expect an updated Skype version that will leverage 3G data.
- Jan 16, 2010: Skype releases a new iPhone version which DOESN'T take advantage of the new leeway AT&T (and ostensibly Apple) allow for VoIP over 3G. Skype points fingers, mostly back at Apple.
- Jan 27, 2010: Apple removes any 3G VoIP restrictions. Now there is nothing holding Skype from doing VoIP over 3G on iPhone.
- Mid Feb, 2010: At MWC in Barcelona, Verizon and Skype announce a special version of the Skype app that will run on Verizon. While most press outlets rejoice at the "openness" Verizon wireless is finally showing, it turns out to be a limited, crippled version, which is designed to fit Verizon's agenda, NOT customer wishes. This version can use the 3G data network, but just for chat and 'control', not for voice. It requires a >$10/mo data plan, is not available for phones with Wi-Fi, and 'Skype out' cannot be used to make domestic phone calls. In this deal, it appears that VZW paid Skype for some exclusivity in the USA.
- Mid-Feb, 2010: Also at MWC, Skype CEO Silverman tells Om Malik that we can expect 3G VoIP on iPhone "Very soon", with no firm commitment.
- Feb. 26, 2010: Skype completely pulls it's very functional Windows Mobile apps with little explanation, and no suggestion of when they might return. The app, which works fine, just goes away. Why pull the most functional Skype mobile app and leave only crippled versions?
Looking at the timeline above, it's pretty easy to guess what's going on here. Skype has been negotiating with Verizon Wireless for some exclusive deal in the USA. But unlike the relatively good, open Skype deal enjoyed by Hutch "3" subscribers in the UK, the Verizon version is crippled with confusing limitations, complications, conditions. It's clear the Verizon goal is to use Skype to upsell data plans to users who don't yet have one, and to drive or retain Minutes of Use of cellular voice traffic. Skype just sold its US mobile users down the river! Skype still promotes "Skype Mobile" on its US web pages, but if you click on any OS like Android or Blackberry, you'll see the bold headline "Coming Soon: Skype on America's most reliable wireless network." And are basically told to wait for the exclusive product.
The only reason Skype offered
for retracting the WinMo app is "because we want to offer our new customers an improved mobile experience – much like the version that has proved so popular on the iPhone..." Wait...Is that the same version that annoyed users because it couldn't do VoIP on 3G? And how does killing a product with no replacement offer an "improved mobile experience"? Seems like more of an absent mobile experience.
Going forward, this also could position Skype well for offering a premium paid version of a fully functional app at a future date, when exclusive deals expire. A freemium model would be less unsavory than the exclusive/crippled structure that we apparently have for now. At least with freemium, the free market can choose to pay or not from any given carrier. With the exclusive/crippled structure, customers have little choice - except the choice to use another VoIP provider who is focused on giving end users what they want.
The result of this exclusive deal is, essentially, to deprive an entire country of the value of a good VoIP service (Skype) on mobile phones, and instead to offer us a crippled version that is designed not to delight any user, but to delight a carrier. How ironic, then, that Skype's Silverman has been at the forefront
of the push
for more "open" networks
"Nonetheless, the positive actions of one company are no substitute for a government policy that protects openness and benefits consumers. We're all looking forward to further developments that will let people use Skype on any device, on any network."
or when he said this from a September
lobby trip to DC:
"We have witnessed certain broadband providers unilaterally block access to phone calls delivered over data networks and implement technical measures that degrade the performance of peer-to-peer software distributing lawful content. And as many members of the Internet community and key congressional leaders have noted, there are compelling reasons to be concerned about the future of openness."
Compelling reasons, indeed. It seems that in this case, AT&T actually followed through with their promises to be more "open" while Skype and Verizon have just painted a big "open" sign on the gates of the walled garden. Enter at your own risk.